Friday, 18 November 2016

Mountain Painters and Shan Shui

 Path to Kallas Monastery. (Tibet): Nicholas Roerich 1932

The wise find pleasure in waters, the virtuous in mountains: Kong Zi (Confucius)

The painting of mountains and or  climbing action is now an activity with a long history, but it is a difficult discipline to embrace in order to achieve a meaningful result for a studious beholder, and more so for  the artist involved. In recent years there has been several such artists within the British climbing world; John Redhead, Tim Pollard, Bill Peascod, Tom Price, Julian Cooper, Jim Curran etc but they were I believe working within  a sub section of landscape painting , which has its historical origins in China. A form of art which has always encompassed a spiritual element, drawing on Daoism, but which only became explicit in the west with romanticism.

The earliest landscape painting with no human  figures depicted has its origins in frescoes in Minoan Greece, (circa 1500 BCE) but by the 10th/11th century during the Chinese Song dynasty a form of painting, shan shui (mountain water) with brush and ink, had been perfected to the highest standards. Mountains had long been considered sacred places in China, and surprisingly plain dwelling literati painted vertiginous peaks such as Kuo Hsi’s ‘Clearing autumn skies over mountains and valleys’; these works included human figures set  in the vastness of nature, with a Daoist emphasis on the insignificance of the human presence in a scene depicting mountains, waterfalls and rivers.

These works (often in scroll form) do not try to represent an exact image of what the painter sees in nature, but what they thought about this. It is not important whether the painted colours or shapes look exactly like the real object; the intent is to capture on paper an awareness of inner reality and wholeness. Shan shui painters use the same materials and techniques as shufu (calligraphy), and they are judged by the same criteria, including a philosophy which regards painting and shufu as a form of meditation, influenced by Chan (Zen) Buddhism.

David Friedrich Casper's 'Wanderer above a Sea of Fog'

During the renaissance the development of a thorough system of graphical perspective in Italy, quickly became standard throughout Europe, and later in the USA, and eventually to an ever wider geographic area. This allowed large and complex views to be painted, which had a dramatic effect in the working of outdoor studies. Some of the most outstanding artists of the 18th and 19th centuries painted mountain scenes, and crucial in this development was David Friedrich Casper’s  ‘Wanderers Above The Sea of Fog’ of 1818 which had a major influence on the romantic movement, along with Gainsborough’s ‘Mountain Landscape With Shepherd’ of 1783.Subsequently in the US during the 19th century, there was the White Mountain School, which included Albert Bierstadt an outstanding painter of Rocky Mountain Landscapes, and later still from the Hudson River School, Thomas Hill a recorder of views in Yosemite.

By this date mountain studies were appearing as far apart as Duncan Darroch in New Zealand(Mount Cook), Svetlana Kanyo in the Canadian Rockies, Sergio Lopez painting  Zion and the  Sierras and Ivan Aivazvosky, the Caucasus . Mountain paintings are such that they either compliment ones taste and approval or not, but for myself I have two favourite mountain painters, the English born Edward Theodore Compton (1849-1921) and the Russian, Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947).   

I was first intrigued by Compton’s paintings when along with Ian Howell I was invited to give a talk in 1965 at the Alpenverienhaus in Innsbruck about our 1964 attempt on Gauri Sankar. Around the walls of some of the rooms were the most impressive mountain paintings I had then seen. I was even more intrigued about their provenance when I was informed they were the work of an English artist, E. T. Compton.

Edward Theodore Compton : Zermatt

Compton I later found out had been born into a devout Quaker family in Stoke Newington in 1849, and exhibited from an early age an outstanding ability at drawing and sketching. His parents recognising his unique talent moved their family to Germany in order for him to study and develop his abilities, first in Darmstadt and then Munich. On a family holiday to the Bernese Oberland, he saw for the first time Alpine mountains and decided he would paint them. It was whilst living in Germany he began to climb, and over the next five decades he made over 300 ascents including 27 firsts, with some of the outstanding mountaineers of that era, Ludwig Purtscheller, Emil Zsigmondy and Karl Blodig. The latter was the first to ascend all the 4000 metre peaks in the Alps, and with whom Compton made the first guideless climb in 1905 of the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey, and the first ascent of the Torre Di Brenta and the South Face of the Cima di Brenta . In a German publication Berg, he is described as being strong physically, and an excellent technical climber.

Compton became well known as an illustrator for the German and Austrian Alpine Clubs, and was the artist who provided the plates for two of the most iconic mountain books of that period, ‘In the High Mountains’ by Zsigmondy (1889) and ‘Mountaineering in pictures’ by Alfred Steinitzer (1913). In 1880 he was elected to the Royal Academy, and he was a member of the Alpine Club and the DAV (German/Austrian Alpine Clubs).  When he was 70 he ascended the Gross Glockner, but his climbing achievements pale once you are confronted by his canvases.  For myself, his paintings of the Alps (he also visited North Africa, Scandinavia, the Andes   and the UK etc); including the Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, and the Dolomites are memorable but his study of the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses is peerless.

This was exhibited in Chamonix last year, and all those who viewed this (many thousands) were impressed by its detail and accuracy, but nevertheless he can be regarded as an expressionist. He died in 1921 and a hut in the Carinthian Alps bears his name, but his real memorial, are his paintings. It has taken many years for his true technical and artistic ability to be recognised, but if you want to own one you now need deep pockets.

Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich, little known in Britain, is a man for whom the designation polymath is hardly adequate. There are two museums extant at present which illustrate his achievements as a painter, archaeologist, designer, writer, architect, philosopher, musician, and spiritualist. There is one museum in New York and another in Moscow which aim to illustrate the full range of Roerich’s accomplishments, the most lauded of which are his paintings, particularly of Himalayan Mountains and the peoples of those regions. The totality of his canvases spread amongst different collections around the world amount to a staggering 7000 plus paintings.  

He was born in St Petersburg to a well to do notary public, and studied law to please his father and art to please himself; graduating at both the University and the Imperial art school with outstanding grades. An early interest in archaeology and history, caused him to undertake a long journey around Russia and from this, subsequently, once a member of the artistic community in the Russia of that era, he drafted a story, ‘The Rites of Spring’, the music for which was composed by Stravinsky. Diaghilev had been a fellow law student with Roerich, and he invited him to design sets for ‘The Ballet Russes’ which was to cause such a sensation in Paris before the first war. Roerich’s designs for Borodin’s ‘Prince Igor’ (1909) and ‘The Rites of Spring’ cemented his reputation in that field. 

Nicholas Roerich
At the Russian Revolution of 1917, which he supported, along with Maxim Gorky he was trusted with the role of setting up an arts commission by the Soviet, but sickened by the killing and persecutions which followed the revolution, Roerich migrated with his wife and two young boys first to Finland, then to England, invited by Thomas Beecham to design sets for him at Covent Garden. In England he met with H.G.Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel prize- winning Indian poet, whose niece his youngest son Svetoslav married in 1945; the legendary Bollywood actress Devika Rani.

During the first decade of the 1900’s, largely due to his wife Helena, Roerich developed an interest in Eastern religions, which would shape the rest of his life; the influence of Theosophy, Vedanta, Zen Buddhism and other mystical concepts can be detected not only in his paintings, but in the many stories and poems he wrote and illustrated. His wife was related to Mussorgsky, and another connection was with Rimsky-Korsakov, and because of this he was invited to the USA where he designed the sets for that composers opera ‘The Snow Maiden’. They settled in New York and founded there an Institute for the Arts, an art school with an extensive and versatile curriculum, including architecture. Roerich’s acclaimed publication on this subject ’Architectural Studies’ (1904/5) had become a standard text by that date.

 They also set up  the Agni Yoga Society, whilst -meanwhile an exhibition of his paintings toured the country and a book of his poetry, translated by Mary Siegrist , was published at that time. They stayed in the US until 1923, but then travelled out to Darjeeling, encouraged to move there to be near the Himalaya, which was where they felt their spiritual journey was leading them.  Two of his paintings of Kanchenjunga from this date, have subsequently sold at auction for over one million pounds each, I have a framed print of one of these on my living room wall.

This interest in the Himalayan region led on to the Roerich’s setting forth with their son George, a brilliant linguist who was later to publish the first  Tibetan/English/Russian language dictionary,  and six friends to travel these regions for five years. They started in Sikkim, then moved on to Punjab, Kashmir, Ladakh, the Karakoram, Hotan, Kashgar, Urumqi, Iyrtish, the Altai mountains, the Oyrot region of Mongolia, the central Gobi, Gansu, Tsaidam and finally Tibet. Where they received an icy reception, being stopped on the high Tibetan plateau and forced to live in tents in sub-zero conditions, and to exist on subsistence meagre rations for several months, during which five members of their party died. Finally they were allowed to leave Tibet in March 1928, from whence they retreated back to India.

Returning first to Darjeeling; Roerich wrote several books about his experiences from this incredible journey, much of it on foot, two of which ‘Altai-Himalaya’ and ‘Shambala’ were translated and published in the USA.  He had also painted many outstanding studies of the mountains he had viewed, including the Mustagh Tower, whilst traversing the Himalaya. In 1929 Roerich was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the University of Paris. His concern for peace resulted in his creation of the Pax Cultura, the ‘Red Cross’ of art and culture. His work for this cause resulted in the USA and the twenty other nations of the Pan-American Union, signing the Roerich pact on April 15th 1935 at the White House under President Roosevelt. This was an early international instrument attempting to protect cultural property.

Pictures of Roerich at this time, illustrate a tall, bearded, erect personality, who might have emerged out of the pages of a Tolstoy story. In 1935 on behalf of the US Department of Agriculture, accompanied by two of their scientists MacMillan and Stephens, Roerich led an expedition to Inner Mongolia and Manchuria. The expedition’s purpose was to collect the seeds of plants which prevent the destruction of benign layers of soil.

During his journeying in the Himalaya, Roerich decided on the need for a Himalayan Institute and in January 1929, he and his family moved to the Punjab’s, Kulu Valley. A site he had noted on his previous travels, and there by the village of Naggar , he bought the Hall estate from the Rajah of Mandi. His son, Svetoslav who is now revered in India as one of its most famous artists, who studied painting with his father from a young age, declared ‘I have seen many countries, but I have not discovered a more beautiful place as the Kulu Valley’. There they set up the Himalayan Research Institute, ‘Urusvati’ a name which in Sanskrit means ‘The light of the morning star’. From this base they set out on journeys into Lahul, Spiti, and Ladakh , and back at the Institute they studied local cultures, language, the natural sciences and much more.

Both Nicholas and Svetoslav painted local peoples and scenery, whilst their eldest son, George a Philologist, who had studied at University College London, Harvard, and the Sorbonne and was fluent in Sanskrit, Pali, Hindi,Chinese  and Tibetan studied local dialects and language. The Roerichs continued their intense work in the Kulu valley until Nicholas died in 1947. Whilst living at Naggar, Roerich was visited by both Nehru and Indira Gandhi and subsequently his son Svetoslav painted their portraits, which along with that of a former President, Radhakrishan, also by him adorn the central Parliament Hall in Delhi.

Nicholas Roerich was a mystic, and an altruistic philosopher dedicated to the Himalaya and its peoples, he painted them as no one else has. He was a symbolist, and prior to his Indian sojourn, many of his paintings are of Slavic history and legend which some find ‘disturbing’. H.P. Lovecraft the cult horror story writer referred several times to the ‘strange and disturbing’ paintings of Nicholas Roerich, especially in his Antarctic novel of 1936,’At  the mountains of madness’. Nevertheless one of these ‘strange’ paintings, the Madonna Laboris sold for 12 million dollars at Bonham’s in 2013! So to own one of these you would need even deeper pockets than to purchase a Compton.

There have been so many books now about the Roerich’s that it is hard to understand why so few people have heard about them in the UK? There are several biographies, and one about Nicholas and his wife Helena ‘The Spiritual Journey of two great artists’ by Ruth Drayer was published in 2014, and another ‘Nicholas Roerich- Inspired by the Himalaya’ by Ashok Dilwali appeared in 2013 and several of his own books are still in a revised recently  published form. There are even music compositions such as the ‘Roerich Suite’ by Juan Carlos Garcia available as an MP3 download. Besides the two museums dedicated to his works in New York and Moscow, there are Roerich Institutes in Mexico and Brasil.

Krishna (Spring in Kulu): Nicholas Roerich

It is obvious now that Roerich was ahead of his time, his spirituality, his interest in Eastern religions and their philosophies detailing a way of living, perhaps anticipated  the ‘beat’ movement and its  Zen Buddhist* disciples of the 1960’s? But few have been able to bridge the gap in thought and interpretation as he did. He was also such a ferocious worker; to carry on with all the creative activity he undertook year in year out is truly impressive. Inevitably within his huge oeuvre there are works which are sub-standard, especially within some of his writings, but at his best, he was I believe an outstanding artist of the highest ability.

*Zen Buddhism is a fusion of Daoist and Buddhist beliefs. Daoism is the only religion to emerge from China, but Zen is a Chinese construct from the Tang dynasty 618-907), known as Chan in that country, and Zen in Japan and the West.

Dennis Gray: 2016........(Previously unpublished)